There’s always a warm homecoming at festivals for directors who return after breaking out there years prior, as well as an unspoken fear that their follow-up might not have quite the same impact. In 2011, Sean Durkin premiered his first feature, the chilly psychodrama Martha Marcy May Marlene, at Sundance and won a directing award as well as a flurry of excitable reviews, planting his name, as well as star Elizabeth Olsen’s, on the map. It was the kind of jolting debut that made anyone who watched it curious to know what he would do next. In the nine years since, he directed the disturbing British miniseries Southcliffe, but has been notably absent from the big screen. He returns to the fold this year with the accomplished and uneasy family drama The Nest, a film with a delicate slow build that feels fitting for a director who’s also taken his time to make it.
Durkin, who was born in Canada before moving to Britain and then New York, has taken elements from his continent-hopping youth for the plot of his latest, the story of a family making the big move and the emotional rot that sets in. It’s the 1980s, and the O’Haras are leaving their suburban American setting to live in the UK, where father Rory (Jude Law) was born. His American wife Alison (Carrie Coon) is unsure, having moved four times in the past 10 years, but he’s convinced there are financial opportunities they simply can’t afford to turn down. He works as a commodities broker but is driven by an ambition to do and make more, and as they settle into their new lives at a grandiose country mansion in Surrey, his excitement for what lies ahead starts to unravel.
Rory is a convincingly cocksure smooth-talker whose embrace of the American dream has returned him to England with a different, more daring worldview. He’s hungry and wants to give his family more, even if they might already have enough. His background was one of limited means and so his idea of happiness is somewhat skewed, forever trying to play the part of a man he never thought he could become, tirelessly constructing an extravagant self-image to mask his working-class origins. But it means he’s often blinded to what his family really needs, and so as he pushes them further and further into a financial bracket they cannot easily sustain, cracks start to appear.
There’s a deftly controlled interplay between a man who wants to be in control in a traditional sense and a quietly strong-willed wife who wants to allow him this but fears for the price his reckless decision-making might have on their family. Alison is constantly told she doesn’t need to concern herself with the bigger picture (“It’s not your job to worry,” Rory tells her at one point) but she’s smart enough to know something is awry. The ridiculously ostentatious house they live in, the hunt for a Mayfair apartment, talk of a condo in the Algarve – it’s all, embarrassingly, obviously too much. Watching Alison gain the strength to challenge Rory, sometimes in darkly amusing ways, gives the film some of its most dramatically juicy moments but the film avoids feeding us the more predictably telegraphed conflict we might expect from the set-up.
Because The Nest is a slow burn, requiring extreme, dedicated patience even from those familiar with Durkin’s last film. He gently plays with genre tropes, briefly fooling us into thinking that maybe we’re watching a horror film set in a dark, decaying old house, but the horror is of a more human kind as the decay starts to infect the family dynamic, slowly but surely taking them to a place that might not allow for a return. Law is an actor known for his magnetic charm, but it’s always more compelling to watch it backgrounded by a certain darkness, and this is him at his best, playing a man who starts to question the bullshit he’s lived by for so long. Coon, an actor who typically finds a way of stealing whatever film she’s in no matter how small the role, is also on top form, gently crumbling while also finding herself as a woman. The pair convince entirely as a married couple with a history, shown less to us through exposition and more through day-to-day behaviour.
It’s elegantly constructed and precisely composed, with Durkin painstakingly recreating an era without falling into nostalgic overload. But it’s also a drama about a family that keeps us at a distance for the most part. It’s intriguing without always being involving and while the lethargic narrative might speed up in the final act, it’s only by a fraction and I wanted just a little bit more of something to grasp on to at the end, having spent so much time with characters I found so fascinating. I feel as though The Nest will haunt me though with its eerie portrait of a family falling apart without ever being sure if they can put themselves back together again.